Q&A with Bryan Washington: Making a ‘Memorial’

Colton Alstatt

Memorial (320 pages; Riverhead Books) is author Bryan Washington’s first novel and currently in development as an television series from acclaimed production house A24. The book centers on the relationship between Mike and his partner, Benson, as the former departs for Osaka, Japan to locate his ailing father, leaving Benson behind to contend with Mike’s mother in their shared Houston apartment. Washington tells a tightly-woven story about a young, mixed-race, queer couple comprehending their febrile love in the oppressive contexts of a larger world. Washington, whose story “Community Plot” appeared in our 35th Anniversary Issue, spoke to ZYZZYVA about the novel via email.

ZYZZYVA: Memorial pays close attention to its settings—particularly Houston, where you grew up, and which does not get the same literary attention as other major US cities. The novel sketches a warm portrait that includes details about the city’s recent changes: both Mike and Ben point out the influx of professor-types in the Third Ward, which feels self-referential given your recent post as faculty at Rice University. How has your relationship to Houston changed over the years? 

Bryan Washington: That’s a fun question—it’s been dynamic in the way that the relationships I hold dear often are. I guess I’m still figuring that out. But I feel deeply lucky that that’s been the case. So as my interests and endeavors and, frankly, access to the privilege of mobility, has changed, for better or worse, I’ve gotten to move around the city a bit, and to gravitate in and out of its different pockets. But, at the end of the day, your interests are what they are, and what keeps me in Houston is the city’s diversity, and its warmth. Alief [a suburb of Houston] has a ton of that, and I’ve lived in the area for a while now. I like it a lot.  

Z: At one point, Mike says “All I’m saying is that it’s a big world out there,” and Ben replies “What the fuck? What world? We live in one place.” Memorial is partially the result of careful research of two places 7,000 miles apar—Osaka, Japan and Houston, Texas. Why did it feel important for Memorial to be a global novel? 

BW: The easy answer is that it’s the sort of book that I wanted to read. Or as close to an approximation of that as I could reach at the time. Houston and Osaka felt, and feel, like sister cities to me, but I could never really tangibly spell out why. Writing the book was one way of getting closer to some kind of an answer. But the funny thing is that, if you were to ask me that question today, I still wouldn’t know what to tell you—but at least I could point at the book and say, Here.  

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Z: A lot of writers find it difficult to interact with smartphones or the internet in a naturalistic way. Do you think there is a way you interact with the world that makes you more apt to tackle contemporary-feeling things? 

BW: Nah. But if we’re positing that art has even a modicum of relevance to contemporary life, then it feels intellectually dishonest, if not lazy, not to at least allude to life’s trappings. Or maybe I just love my phone.  

Z: How has your approach changed now that you’re adapting Memorial for its A24 television series?  What do you find limiting or liberating about writing for the screen?

BW: It’s a different exercise for the same muscles. I’m losing a lot of the interiority I rely on throughout the novel, and in my fiction generally, but I’m gaining the chance to investigate and expand the narrative’s effects on other sensory details.  

One example I keep turning to is the use of silence: it’s one thing to read that two characters sit without speaking for, like, five minutes. That’s a line of fiction. Maybe a paragraph, or a few pages. It gets its point across. But it’s quite another to show those two characters, in close proximity, with the world doing its thing around them, and their having to negotiate the silence between one another. You get to read their faces. You watch how their bodies communicate what their words can’t. The emotional weight there is palpably different. (I won’t say stronger; it just depends on the context). So, looking for ways to exacerbate the medium’s capabilities without sacrificing the novel’s integrity has been a tricky thing—but fun, too.  

Z: In an interview with the New York Times, you said that you watched and emulated your neighbors when you learned to cook. In Memorial, Ben and Mike disagree on how to interact with the family next door. As someone who has lived in Houston, I find it interesting that there is no general consensus on neighborly behavior and that interactions between neighbors are often indirect, but nevertheless the idea of community within neighborhoods is very important to people. Could you touch on how growing up in Houston shaped your ideas regarding neighborliness? 

BW: I think your observation is the exact thing. A friend of mine likes to say that Houston’s a place without context, or that the plurality of contexts you can navigate simultaneously in this city is so destabilizing to newcomers that the center is hardly visible. But growing up here, I think it’s understood that even if you and your neighbor aren’t exactly communing with one another, you’re both still indispensable parts of the larger community. As a kid growing up here, there wasn’t really a tangible line connecting my block’s neighbors and my own family (besides our not being white). But it was understood that, if we needed one another, we’d be there for another. And no one would have to ask. The other side of that understanding is that you’ll show up for your neighbor when they need you, too.  

But that liminal contract feels like a rare thing—especially in the States, particularly right now—so it’s endlessly fascinating to me narratively. Like, what are the parameters of that contract? How expendable is that agreement to a resident’s sense of self within the city? Or to their sense of community? And what happens when that unstated understanding doesn’t hold up for one reason or another? The subject’s inexhaustible.  

Z: Food and the purpose of cooking is a big part of Memorial. What are some of your personal favorite dishes that Mike or Mitsuko cook?

BW: The easy answer is potato korokke—there’s a direct line between my comfort with cooking that dish and my polishing of the novel’s drafts. Memorial is far from autobiography, to say the least, but a true thing is that Mike and I both have a love for korokke.  

I’m always cooking eggs, though, and tamagoyaki (a rolled omelet) might be the dish Mitsuko turns to in the book that I actually make most often. It’s wildly nourishing.  

Read Bryan Washington’s story “Community Plot” by purchasing our 35th Anniversary Issue from the Shop page.

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